Madras High Court Thursday confirmed the September 2017 decision of Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal to disqualify 18 MLAs loyal to TTV Dhinakaran, nephew of the late Jayalalithaa’s close aide V K Sasikala. The decision ensures the immediate survival of the government of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, and brings closure, for now, to the dramatic events in the AIADMK since Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016.
How did the matter reach the High Court? What is the significance of this verdict for the political situation in Tamil Nadu and beyond? What are the implications for Dhinakaran’s future?
Rebellion, merger, disqualification
Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016 broke the discipline and structure of the party that she had controlled with overpowering authority for decades. O Panneerselvam, popularly known as OPS, became Chief Minister the day after Jayalalithaa’s death, but could remain in the post for only a little more than two months. On February 5, 2017, the AIADMK legislature party unanimously elected Sasikala its leader, paving the way for her to become Chief Minister, and Governor C Vidyasagar Rao accepted OPS’s resignation the following day. On that same day — February 6 — however, the Supreme Court indicated it could pronounce its verdict in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa, in which Sasikala was co-accused, within the next week.
With considerable disquiet within the party over the possibility of Sasikala’s conviction, OPS revolted, parking himself at Jaya’s memorial on Marina beach, claiming he had been “forced” to step down as Chief Minister. On February 9, Sasikala staked claim to form the government, but the Governor took no decision for several days. On February 14, 2017, the Supreme Court convicted Sasikala and sent her to jail in Bengaluru, thus dashing her hopes of becoming CM. AIADMK MLAs, however, remained behind her, and on February 16, Sasikala’s nominee Palaniswami, known as EPS, became CM.
Soon afterward, however, EPS, his entire cabinet, and a majority of AIADMK MLAs turned against Sasikala and her nephew and deputy chief of the party, Dhinakaran, allegedly under pressure from the BJP. On August 21, the EPS and OPS factions announced their merger, and OPS became Deputy Chief Minister.
Sasikala and Dhinakaran were expelled from the party, but a clutch of AIADMK MLAs remained loyal to them. In September 2017, 19 MLAs of the Dhinakaran faction met Governor Rao and submitted a memorandum expressing lack of confidence in CM EPS. One MLA subsequently stepped back, and on September 18, Speaker Dhanapal disqualified the remaining 18 rebels under the anti-defection law. These MLAs challenged the Speaker’s action in the Madras High Court.
Battle in HC and SC
Both sides were represented by high-profile lawyers. The hearings were completed and the court reserved its verdict in January 2018. Five months later, on June 14, 2018, the two-judge High Court Bench delivered a split verdict — while the then Chief Justice Indira Banerjee upheld the disqualification order passed by the Speaker on September 18, 2017, Justice M Sundar quashed it on grounds of “perversity, non-compliance with the principles of natural justice and for the violation of constitutional mandate”.
A third judge, Justice S Vimala, was then chosen to hear the case afresh. But the 18 disqualified MLAs moved the Supreme Court against her nomination, following which a vacation Bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjay Kishan Kaul assigned the matter to be heard by a different judge of the High Court, Justice M Sathyanarayanan.
Government safe for now
The High Court order Thursday upholding Chief Justice Banerjee’s decision in the matter has saved the EPS government from an immediate crisis and a likely floor test. Had the 18 MLAs been reinstated, the opposition numbers would have reached 116 (DMK with its allies Congress and IUML have 97, and Dhinakaran, who has formed his own Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) party, is the MLA from R K Nagar) — the same as the ruling group’s. Two seats in the 234-member House (plus 1 nominated member) — including Thiruvarur, which was represented by the late M Karunanidhi — are vacant. But now, with 20 effective vacancies, Palaniswami’s government is not in any danger. The Election Commission is required to hold elections to the 18 vacant seats within six months.
Impact on Dhinakaran camp
Dhinakaran has the support of four MLAs apart from the 18 who have been disqualified. In the wake of Thursday’s HC decision, his major challenge would be to hold on to these four MLAs. “The MLAs supporting Dhinakaran will have to go to the Assembly. If they choose to join the ruling group before the bypolls, we will be weakened,” a senior politician close to Dhinakaran conceded. “However”, this leader said, “in the next elections, the DMK’s rival is going to be Dhinakaran, not the AIADMK.” Dhinakaran said Thursday that he would consult the 18 MLAs on whether to appeal the High Court order in the Supreme Court, but “personally, my feeling is we should go for byelections”.
AIADMK v DMK v Dhinakaran
Tamil Nadu will see polls to 20 seats within six months, and it will help the DMK if the leadership and cadres of the AIADMK divided. The DMK is in talks to build an alliance with Dalits, the Left, and the Congress; Dhinakaran has had informal talks with S Ramadoss’s PMK and Vijayakanth’s DMDK, parties with sizeable voteshares in northern Tamil Nadu. Dhinakaran is himself popular, having held over three dozen successful public rallies across the state in the past six months — and has the support of his own Thevar community, a powerful OBC group, in central Tamil Nadu.